Monday, March 20, 2017

Like Father, Like Son

Picking the path that God the Father paves for us

Luke 2:41-51A Each year Jesus' parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to festival custom. After they had completed its days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, "Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety." And he said to them, "Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" But they did not understand what he said to them.

          It’s a truism to say that parents always want what’s best for their children. Or, more modest parents might say, “I just want my son or daughter to have a better life than I’ve had.” Precisely this desire drives parents to work countless hours, to lose sleep, and to sacrifice personal goals in order to give their kids the best, or at least a little better than they had themselves. But sometimes, children don’t always follow the path their parents pave for them.

          A perfect case in point is my own parents and me. I am in awe at my parents, who moved to a new country with little or no money or resources, saved and sacrificed, and built a beautiful life for their children. Even more impressive, they sent us to Catholic schools which meant they gave up lots of personal perks and creature comforts. They paved a way for me to have a successful career in any field I chose: I could have become an engineer, a doctor or businessman. Instead, I turned my back on all that and picked the priesthood. I sometimes see homeless people begging for money on the street corner, and I don’t think I’m very different from them. They beg for donations outside the church, and I beg for donations inside the church. Not exactly what my parents had hoped for me. Children don’t always grow up to lead the life their parents sacrifice to give them.

          In the gospel today, we see Jesus likewise picking a path that surprised his human parents. When Jesus was twelve years old, and his family made their annual pilgrimage from Nazareth to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple, Jesus decided to remain behind. This caused great grief for his parents, and Mary speaks for both of them (she is, after all, a Jewish mother, and she has an opinion). She says, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” Jesus calmly answers: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Mary and Joseph, like all parents, were trying to give their son, Jesus, the best, or at least better than they had, and his choice to stay in the Temple both surprised and saddened them. But Jesus realized that he had to please another Parent, namely, his heavenly Father. Indeed, again and again, Jesus would say and do things differently than his mother would have liked, the highest and holiest example being the Crucifixion itself. What mother wants that for her son? Children do not always pick the path their parents pave for them.

          For all you parents who might be a little surprised or saddened by the choices your children make, let me offer some words of advice. First of all, no one has any “right to have children.” They are a gift from God. Remember that not all means of conceiving a child are morally good. Children are only “loaned” to you for 18 years, and you should cram as much goodness and grace as you can into them before they fly the coop. They do not ultimately belong to you; they belong to God. Secondly, encourage them to seek God’s will in their life above all. That means they should seek God’s will above your will, and even above their own will. I did not become a priest because it’s something I wanted to do, but because it’s something (I hope) God wanted me to do. The same with marriage: choose to marry someone not only because you want to, but above all because you think God wants you to. Thirdly, teach your children to pray daily, first and foremost by your own example of personal prayer. I always recommend the rosary. Here’s the sober fact: one day you will die and leave this earth and leave your children. Help your children to have a living relationship with their heavenly Father, who will never leave them. Don’t just leave your children an inheritance of a bunch of money; leave them a legacy of a bunch of grace.

          If you keep these things in mind, you might not be so surprised or so saddened when your children do not pick the path that you have so sacrificially paved for them.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Eating Grass

Satisfying our need for love in Jesus alone

John 4:5-42 Jesus came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there. Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well. It was about noon. A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." His disciples had gone into the town to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, "How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?" —For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.— Jesus answered and said to her, "If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, 'Give me a drink, ' you would have asked him and he would have given you living water."

          Is everyone still enjoying the fond memories of St. Patrick’s Day we celebrated two days ago? Or, should I ask: are you still recovering from the ill effects of too much green beer? Someone sent me an Irish joke I’d like to share with you so we can prolong St. Paddy’s Day a little longer. A wealthy Irish lawyer is driving home from work and he sees a man eating grass by the side of the road. He hollers, “Whatcha doin’ there, friend?” The man replies, “I’m hungry and starvin’, haven’t had any food fer days now, nuttin’ but this grass.” The lawyer says, “Aw, fer the love a Jesus! Come on, then, I’ll take ya to me house. Come on, get in the car.” The relieved man answers, “Oh, God bless and keep ya, sir, but…can I bring me wife and kids? They’re starvin’ too, eating the grass we’ve all been…” The lawyer doesn’t hesitate to say, “Oh ya, bring ‘em along, too. I’ve got the room, now don’t worry. We’ll all be fine!” The man asked again, “And perhaps me poor old uncle as well…” The lawyer laughed and said: “Oh my, yes! Bring ‘em all, yer all welcome, every last one of ya. Heck, the grass out at me home is a foot high!” If you didn’t get that, blame the green beer. When we’re that hungry, it’s amazing what we’ll eat (even grass), and it’s also amazing what other people will try to feed us (more grass). We don’t always nourish ourselves with what’s best for us.

          In the gospel today, we witness another scenario of someone who’s thirsty and another person who promises to satisfy them. In John chapter four we hear the episode of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. John’s literary artistry is on full display as he weaves this story on multiple levels and reveals depths far deeper than Jacob’s well. On the surface of the story, Jesus pauses at a well and casually asks a woman for a drink. That’s the surface level of the story: Jesus is thirsty. When she retorts that Jews don’t talk to Samaritans – much less a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman – Jesus takes the conversation to another, deeper, level. He says, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” The Samaritan is smart and answers, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Notice what Jesus did: on a secondary level, Jesus has helped this woman to see her own thirst, and who can satisfy that thirst, none other than Jesus.

          On yet an even deeper level of the story, we learn how this thirst will be quenched. It’s no coincidence that this encounter occurs precisely at Jacob’s well. That well is no insignificant detail. In the Old Testament wells were places of romance, betrothal and marriage. Jacob found his wife at a well, Moses met his wife at a well, Isaac was introduced to his wife at a well. Well, well, well, now that’s a deep subject! So, knowing this backdrop, it should come as little surprise that Jesus changes the subject of their conversation to love and marriage. He says, “Go call your husband.” The woman answers with a half-truth to the One who is Truth Itself (bad idea).  So, she stammers, “I have no husband,” which was only partially true. So, Jesus helps her remember that she has in fact had “five husbands,” but he adds mysteriously, “and the one you are with now is not your husband.” If you’re catching on to John’s literary genius, you know Jesus rarely says something with only a surface meaning; he always means more than he says. Therefore, when our Lord says, “the one you are with now” he really means himself. The only one who could completely and eternally quench the woman’s thirst for love was Jesus, the true Husband. Jesus had come to be not only her Savior but also her Spouse. You see, the woman had been feeding on the “grass” of human love (which always disappoints), but Jesus invited her to satisfy her hunger and quench her thirst forever with his love.

          My friends, are you hungry or thirsty? I’m not talking about eating corned beef and cabbage and drinking green beer. I don’t have any literary skills like St. John, but ask yourself: what is my heart hungry for? May I suggest to you that it’s the same “food” and “drink” the Samaritan woman sought, namely, love. We are all starving for love. But where do we search for satisfaction? Sometimes, we’re like that poor man eating grass by the road, and try to fill ourselves with the passing pleasures of this world, the pseudo-loves that say they will satisfy but never do. Poor lovers like pornography, one night stands, getting one hundred “likes” on your Facebook homily (that’s me!), alcohol and drugs, our jobs and our jet-skis, our good looks and our good grades, the cult of the body and vanity, amassing money and wealth, our political persuasions preventing us from loving the poor, our cars and computer games, our ambitions and our accolades, our food and our phones. Children on the playground sometimes tease each other saying, “If you love it so much, why don’t you marry it??”  Have we married these lesser loves in our hearts?  Compared to our many lovers, the Samaritan woman was doing much better with only five husbands. But Jesus directs his words to us as much as to the Samaritan: “The one you are with now is not your husband.” In other words, the one we are with right now (at this Mass) is Jesus, and we need to make him our Husband and our true love.

          Do you remember the haunting lyrics of that Johnny Lee song, “Looking for love”? They perfectly summarize the Samaritan’s life, and the perfectly summarize your life, and they perfectly summarize my life.  Johnny Lee sang: “I spent a lifetime lookin’ for you / Single bars and good time lovers were never true / Playing a fool’s game, hopin’ to win / Tellin’ those sweet lies and losin’ again. / I was lookin’ for love in all the wrong places / Lookin’ for love in too many faces / Searchin’ their eyes / Looking for traces of what I’m dreaming of / Hoping to find a friend and a lover / I’ll bless the day I discover / Another heart lookin’ for love.” Folks, spit the grass out of your mouth, and stop filling yourself with these lesser loves, rather, feed on the only One who will fully and forever satisfy you: Jesus, “the Bread of Life” and “the spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Corned Beef Confessions

Growing in love rather than relying on luck

An Old Irish Blessing
May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

          Boys and girls, today is the feast of St. Patrick and everyone feels Irish today, even Indian priests! So, let me share five timeless traditions and tall tales about St. Patrick’s Day. First, what color are people supposed to wear today? The color green! And what’s the punishment if you do not wear green? You will be pinched. Green comes from the beautiful green landscape of Ireland. Second, what small plant did St. Patrick use to explain the Holy Trinity to the people of Ireland? He used the three-leafed clover. Just as there are three leaves but only one clover, so there are three Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – in the Trinity, but only one God.

          Third, an Irish friend gave me this touching prayer this morning, an Irish prayer. It goes: “May all those who love us, love us. And all those who don’t love us…may God turn their hearts. And if he doesn’t turn their hearts…may he turn their ankles, so we will know them by their limp.” Now, St. Patrick did NOT teach people that prayer! Fourth, some people think if you’re Irish you can eat meat on this Friday of Lent because it’s St. Patrick’s Day. That’s a tall tale. I cannot give you dispensation to eat meat today, but I can come an hour early tomorrow and hear everyone’s confessions.

          Here’s the fifth and most important tradition for us at Immaculate Conception Church. Did you know the original name of this church was not “Immaculate Conception,” but rather “St. Patrick”? And when Fort Smith becomes its own diocese, we will name this church, “St. Patrick’s Cathedral”! We have a beautiful stained glass window featuring St. Patrick. If you look closely, you’ll notice he is driving the snakes out of Ireland. Like all stained glass windows, that one, too, is highly symbolic. The snakes symbolize sin, and St. Patrick was really driving out sin and helping people to become saints. That’s why Ireland is called “the land of saints and scholars.”

          Boys and girls, it’s wonderful to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with all the traditions and tall tales: green clothes, corned beef confessions, three leaf clovers, etc. But don’t miss the main message of St. Patrick himself: become a saint by driving out sin and, like St. Patrick drove out snakes. Remember: St. Patrick didn’t come to teach people about luck, he came to teach them about love, especially to love those who walk with a limp.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Pay Attention

Giving each other the gift of our attention

Matthew 20:17-28 As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the Twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day." Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something. He said to her, "What do you wish?" She answered him, "Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom." Jesus said in reply, "You do not know what you are asking.

          Boys and girls, one of the greatest difficulties we face daily is being distracted, losing our focus, and not paying attention. How many of your minds have already started wandering in this homily? It dawned on me how difficult paying attention can be recently when the parish roasted me as a fundraiser recently. One of the best roasts was by Michelle and Jason Wewers, the parents of our student Mary Kate Wewers. Michelle got up and shared how she felt when I first arrived at I.C. as pastor. She said she’s easily distracted at Mass, and her mind wanders at a lot, especially if it’s a foreign priest with a thick accent. When she heard I was originally from India, she was really worried and thought the family might have to switch parishes so she could concentrate at Mass. But when she came and heard me preach at my first Mass, she was horrified. She said, “Oh, no! It’s a lot worse than a foreign accent; he sounds like Barak Obama!” So, apparently, all the Republicans at I.C. are distracted at Mass, but the Democrats give me their undivided attention. We live in the world of “tweets” – if you can’t say something in 140 characters, you lose people’s attention. One of the greatest gifts you can give someone is your full and undivided attention; and the reason it’s a great gift is because it’s so rare.

          In the gospel today, the disciples face the same difficulty: they are easily distracted. Jesus says: “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death.” But were the apostles paying attention? Not at all. Instead, they were arguing over who should sit at Jesus’ right and left, and who was the greatest. I don’t know if Jesus sounded like Barak Obama, but the apostles were as easily distracted as Michelle Wewers at Mass. Their minds were wandering and they could not give Jesus that precious gift of their full and undivided attention. They got distracted.

          Boys and girls, being distracted plagues all of us, even priests. Let me share the five things I do to help me focus on the task at hand and maybe you can use these tips, too. First, take your time and don’t rush through things; don’t rush through life. When you hurry through your homework, you make mistakes. It’s good to be fast in some things – like the 100-yard dash – but not in all things. A friend of mine likes to say, “the three things in life you cannot rush through are friendship, prayer and going to the bathroom.” Some people call the “bathroom” the “library” because they do not rush in there. I rush through one thing because I’m already thinking about the next thing, and I’m distracted. Second, get up and walk around while doing a task, if possible. I walk while praying the rosary. When my body is busy, but my can relax and concentrate. The great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, taught his students by walking with them. They were called “the peripatetics” – which means, “those who walk back and forth.” Go for a walk while talking to a friend, and you’ll hear what he or she says more clearly.

          Third, don’t procrastinate and put off difficult duties; do the hardest tasks first. One priest I know says he prepares his homilies as he’s walking up the aisle during the opening hymn – I hate to hear that homily. When we procrastinate, we get stressed and then distressed and then easily distracted. If you don’t like algebra, do that homework first; if you hate science, do that homework first. Fourth, turn off social media while you’re doing something: talking to someone, your homework, reading a book, attending Mass. How sad to see people in restaurants on their cell phones instead of talking to the people sitting right in front of them. I wonder who the real distraction is: the cell phone or the actual people?

          Fifth, try to think of the last time someone gave you their full and undivided attention, and how good that felt. That’s a sign of someone who cares and loves you. I hope you feel that attention and care from every teacher here at Trinity. One of the things we pride ourselves on here at Trinity is the “students cannot hide.”  We see each of you, and love you and give you our undivided attention.  I certainly feel that when I talk with them: they really pay attention. When we feel no one pays attention to us, we feel very alone, even if we’re standing in a room full of people. I wonder if that’s why so many teens engage in “cutting” themselves, or get depressed, or even commit suicide. They are crying out for attention. Why? Because no one is paying attention; everyone is distracted.

          My friends, Jesus is always paying attention to us; he never stops focusing on us; he’s always read to give us his full and undivided attention whenever we turn to him. Give him some of your time and attention today.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Out, Damned Spot

Learning from our mistakes because we make plenty of them
Matthew 23:1-12 Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation 'Rabbi.' As for you, do not be called 'Rabbi.' You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called 'Master'; you have but one master, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted."

          One of the hardest things to say in the English language is the phrase “I’m sorry.” When was the last time you sincerely apologized for a mistake and really meant what you said? Some people never say it, and would choke on those words.  Why is it so difficult to say “I’m sorry”? The short answer is that it’s hard to be humble and we all think we’re right and others are wrong. Here are a few examples.

          Sometimes we mouth the words, but don’t really mean it in our hearts. Have you ever heard a small child apologize but only because they got caught? They sourly say, “I’m sorry,” but it’s obvious they don’t feel a drop of regret or remorse. That’s really no apology at all, is it? A few weeks ago I was talking with Sam Fiori, a successful businessman in Fort Smith. He went from working in a Taco Bell to owning a few of them. (By the way, that’s a literary device called “understatement.”) I asked Sam what someone needs to do to be as successful as he is, and Sam immediately answered, “They need to learn from their mistakes.” Great answer. But before you can learn from a mistake, you have to humbly admit you made a mistake, and that’s where people fail. You cannot learn from a mistake you don’t think you ever made. In Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth sleepwalks and incessantly washes her hands, crying, “Out, damned spot!” She believed her hands were covered in blood because she convinced her husband to kill the king. But she refuses to say, “I’m sorry. I have sinned.” She only apologies in her sleep. It’s very hard to say, “I’m sorry.”

          In the gospel toady, Jesus laments the lack of this humility in the scribes and Pharisees, and he wants to see this humility in his disciples. Jesus says, “The scribes and Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.” What example was Jesus worried his disciples would imitate? The Pharisees’ self-righteousness and lack of humility. The Pharisees might sleepwalk at night saying, “Out, damned spot!” but they’d never admit their sins in the light of day. The disciples, on the contrary, should avoid being called “Rabbi,” or “father,” or “Master.”  Why?  Well, because there is only One who is sinless and perfect, namely, the Christ. In other words, be humble and “learn from your mistakes” by admitting you make plenty of them. It should be easy for a Christian to say, “I’m sorry.”

          My friends, this Lent learn to make saying, “I’m sorry” a regular part of your vocabulary. The best place to do that is in confession. Soon, reconciliation services will start popping up all over town like fast-food restaurants, where you can go in and learn from your mistakes, like Sam Fiori said. One of the most helpful and healing things spouses can say to each other is “I’m sorry.” But sadly, each one thinks he or she is absolutely right and the other is entirely wrong. They choke on the words, “I’m sorry.” You know, for a long time, I used to think that a priest should never apologize, because after all, shouldn’t we know better and be as “pure and perfect as the driven snow”?? I believed saying, “I’m sorry” was a sign of weakness, but I’ve learned it’s actually the opposite: a genuine apology signifies strength of soul, humility and holiness. A good leader is not always right, but he or she is always humble.

          Folks, stop sleepwalking this Lent and crying, “Out, damned spot!” Be humble and learn from your mistakes. Want to hear a little secret? You make plenty of mistakes.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Merry as a Schoolboy

Embracing the joy of Jesus in the valley of tears

Matthew 17:1-9 Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,  "Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him."

          May I share a little joke with you? I pulled it out of my “good news-bad news” joke box. One day a defense lawyer said to his client, “I have good news and I have bad news, which would like you like to hear first?” The client answered, “What’s the bad news?” The lawyer said, “Your blood matches the DNA found at the murder scene.” The client cried, “Oh, no! That’s terrible! But what’s the good news??” “Well,” the lawyer said, “Your cholesterol is down to 140.” Now, I know that some of you may not like hearing humor in a homily. When I was a little boy attending church at St. Theresa in Little Rock, the priests never told jokes in their homilies. “Salvation is serious business!” they said. And it is.

          But back in 2006, then-Pope Benedict XVI gave an interview on German television. The interviewer asked the Holy Father: “What role does humor play in the life of the pope?” The pope answered, “I’m not a man who constantly thinks up jokes. But I think it’s very important to be able to see the funny side of life and its joyful dimension, and not to take everything too tragically.” The pope continued: “I’d also say it’s necessary for my ministry. A writer once said that angels can fly because they don’t take themselves too seriously. Maybe we could also fly a bit if we didn’t think we were so important.” What’s the pope driving at? Well, there is something angelic and heavenly about humor. Why? Well, because it keeps us humble and we don’t take ourselves or even life too “tragically” or too seriously. Humor helps us to be humble and holy.

          In the gospel today, we hear the episode of the Transfiguration. The apostles see Jesus in his heavenly glory and he’s conversing with Moses and Elijah (who represent the “law” and the “prophets”). Now, we don’t know what they discussed precisely, but clearly it was the “good news” of heavenly glory; indeed, Jesus is literally clothed with glory in the Transfiguration. You see, Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem for the Passion and Death of the Lord.  Salvation is serious business. So, they stopped for a moment to turn their eyes to heaven for a little help. Maybe Elijah said, “Hey, Jesus, your blood will be found at the murder scene of the Cross.” And Moses added, “But don’t worry, your cholesterol is down to 140.” Okay, maybe not. Nevertheless, they helped Jesus see the joyful dimension of life and not to take things too tragically.

          The apostles for their part were filled with overflowing joy. St. Peter blurts out, “Lord it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” The version of this story in Luke adds, “But [Peter] did not know what he was saying” (Luke 9:33). Peter’s reaction always reminds me of that riveting end of Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol, after three ghosts have visited Ebenezer Scrooge.  Do you remember?  “I don’t know what to do!” cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Lacoon of himself with his stockings. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!” For a brief blissful and beatific moment the three apostles felt the same as Scrooge: as if it were Christmas in April in the Holy Land. A holy joy flooded their hearts as they beheld the Transfigured Christ, and that’s just what they would need before they beheld the Crucified Christ a few days later. Both the first pope (Peter) and the 265th pope (Benedict) needed joy in order to carry out their papal ministry, so they don’t take everything too tragically.

          My friends, I’m here this weekend thanks to Fr. Jason’s permission to promote Trinity Junior High. I’m here to ask you to send your junior high children to Trinity, and to help us financially in the second collection. There’s a lot I could say to brag about our school: the superior academics (did you see the article in Saturday’s paper and the picture on the front page about the STEM program?), the extensive extracurricular activities, the compassionate community service the students complete, the terrific teachers, all located on the sacred grounds of St. Scholastica monastery. But instead of all that, I want to say a word about the joy you’ll find in our school, namely the joy of Jesus. Sometimes we look around at the world and we see lots of bad news and very little good news. Bad news that even touches our teens: like drugs and gangs, abuse and neglect, bullying and smoking and sadly even sex. At Trinity, we are not immune from these temptations, but we have a powerful Ally in this fight, namely, the joy of Jesus. How? Well, we celebrate Mass every week, and listen to the Scriptures and receive Holy Communion. Dr. Hollenbeck, our principal, has set up “prayer partners” this year throughout the school. Now, 9th graders pray for 8th graders, and 8th graders pray for 7th graders, and 7th graders pray for the 9th graders. The teaches pray for each other. And the whole school prays for me (because I need it the most)! Like the three apostles, our students stop every week to see the Transfigured Jesus at Mass, so we can handle seeing the Crucified Jesus in the world around us. Like Pope Benedict said, “It’s very important to be able to see the …joyful dimension [of life] and not to take everything so tragically.” Trinity teaches our students the joy of Jesus.

          No one said this better than Mary Poppins, in her immortal song, “A spoonful of sugar.” She sang: “In every job that must be done / There is an element of fun / You find the fun and snap! / The job’s a game / And every task you undertake / Becomes a piece of cake / Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down / In the most delightful way.” The Transfiguration was the spoonful of sugar that helped the medicine of the Crucifixion go down for Jesus and the apostles. And the joy of Jesus is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine of junior high school go down for our students. And a little humor helps the medicine of the Mass go down for me and you.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Art of the Deal

Learning how to cut a deal with God

Deuteronomy 26:16-19 Moses spoke to the people, saying: "This day the LORD, your God, commands you to observe these statutes and decrees. Be careful, then, to observe them with all your heart and with all your soul. Today you are making this agreement with the LORD: he is to be your God and you are to walk in his ways and observe his statutes, commandments and decrees, and to hearken to his voice. And today the LORD is making this agreement with you: you are to be a people peculiarly his own, as he promised you; and provided you keep all his commandments, he will then raise you high in praise and renown and glory above all other nations he has made, and you will be a people sacred to the LORD, your God, as he promised."

          Have you read President Donald Trump’s famous book called The Art of the Deal? If you haven’t, don’t feel bad, I haven’t either. But I did a little research on it and found that he elaborates 11 principles for concluding a good business deal. I think you’ll find them fascinating, especially since he’s now the 45th president of the United States. Trump lists the following 11 steps as crucial to “the art of the deal” – (1) Think big (like becoming president), (2) Protect the downside and the upside will take care of itself, (3) Maximize your options, (4) Know your market (like who was voting last year), (5) Use your leverage, (6) Enhance your location (I can’t believe he doesn’t have a luxury hotel in Fort Smith), (7) Get the word out (send tweets at 2 a.m.), (8) Fight back (send tweets at 2 a.m.), (9) Deliver the goods, (10) Contain the costs, and (11) Have fun. Now, please don’t think I want to make this a political homily – far from it.

          Rather, whether you agree with the president on these principles, or have your own guidelines, it’s undeniable that negotiating with others – indeed, any human relationship – is an art from. All negotiations require as much intuition and imagination as they do math and masters’ degrees. My dad taught me that if you’re going to buy a car, always be willing to walk away. That’s part of “the art of the deal.”

          Our Scriptures today give us a glimpse of the artistry needed to cut a deal with God. The first reading from Deuteronomy says plainly that God wants to negotiate a deal with us, stating: “Today you are making this agreement” – a deal – “with the Lord: he is to become your God and you are to walk in his ways, and observe his statutes, commandments and decrees and to harken to his voice.” And what’s God’s end of the bargain in this deal? Deuteronomy adds: “God will then raise you high in praise and renown and glory above all the other nations he has made.” Not a bad deal!

          But in the gospel Jesus reveals more of the art of the deal with God. He says, “I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  In other words, the difference between human negotiations and divine deals is that humans are hungry for what they get out of the deal, but God is only interested in what he can give in the deal. That’s the art of dealing with God: not “maximize your location,” or “fight back,” or “use your leverage,” but rather sacrificing everything, and generosity in giving. You could almost say that the whole Bible was written to teach us “the art of the deal” when negotiating with God.

          Today ask yourself: how am I dealing with others and how am I dealing with God? Again, this is not a political homily. I believe Trump’s book has its own logic and legitimacy in the business world. But it does not translate easily into our dealings with each other and with God, where another paradigm and other principles are at play, namely, giving rather than getting. Consider these two examples. Fr. Tribou told us boys at Catholic High School that when you come to Mass you come to “give something” rather than to “get something.” But how often do we catch ourselves saying, “I didn’t get anything out of that Mass!” That’s the wrong art of the deal. When you think that way, you’re not an artist, you’re still painting by numbers. Recently, a mother was lamenting her problems at home with her husband and her kids, and she asked me: “Am I supposed to make myself miserable, so that everyone else can be happy??” And I looked at her in the eyes and simply said: “Yes. Yes, you are; because that’s what Jesus did: he made himself miserable so that everyone else could be happy.”  That’s the right art of the deal.  Now, you’re painting like Picasso and Rembrandt.

          Folks, Lent is the time to renegotiate a deal with God; to read the “small print” and understand again the “terms and conditions” of our agreement with God. This deal is based on giving and grace and generosity, not on greed or getting or earthly glory. Lent is the time to learn again the art of the deal.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Harder and Easier

Making Lent harder so that we make loving easier
Matthew 5:20-26 Jesus said to his disciples:  "I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven. "You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, Raqa, will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, 'You fool,' will be liable to fiery Gehenna.

          Here’s a little brain teaser for you this morning. Did Jesus come on earth to make our lives easier or harder? By the way, before you answer, remember this rule: whenever anyone describes a dilemma in which they force you to choose one of two options - either this or that - I always choose BOTH options! Instead of “either-or,” always answer “both-and.” That’s not just the more clever reply; that’s also the more Christian reply. So, the right answer to my earlier question would be Jesus came to make our lives both harder and easier. How so? Well, consider a couple of examples.

          Does Coach Nick Saben, head football coach at Alabama, make his players’ lives easier or harder? The answer is, “he makes their lives both harder and easier.” How? He makes their lives harder in practice but easier to win championships. I watched an interview with him where he explained his coaching philosophy. He said: “I make our players practice again and again. They practice not so that they get the play right, but so they cannot get the play wrong.” Ironically, by making practice harder, he actually makes playing football and winning championships easier Coach Mike Krzyzewski (or Coach K) is relentlessly hard on his basketball players, and anyone who attends Duke and plays for Coach K knows their life will be hard as heck. But that’s exactly why high school kids dream of playing for him: by making their practices hard, he will make their playing easy. And easy to win championships. Harder and easier.

          In the gospel today, Jesus gives a perfect case in point of “both-and” where harder leads to easier. He says: “You have heard it said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill’…But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” Clearly, Jesus, like Coach Saben and Coach K, is not making it easier for his disciples. Their holiness must be greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees: that’s a lot harder. They must practice love of neighbor not till they get it right but until they cannot get it wrong. Love of neighbor must penetrate into their hearts until they love not only in action but even in their desires. And this radical love – by the way, radical comes from the Latin word “radix” which means “root” – does not make it easier to win championships but easier to win heaven, the ultimate championship. Jesus came to make our life harder.  And easier.

          This is the same spirit in which we should look at Lent. For forty days we make our lives harder by practicing penance (giving up dessert or television), by adding hours of prayer (a daily Mass or the rosary), and alms-giving (giving more to church or charity). Are these things hard? Yes. Do we feel a little miserable? Yes. Do we sometimes want to give up? Yes. But it’s also very hard to play football at Alabama and basketball at Duke. But also remember how easy those players make it look on the gridiron and on the court. So, too, when you make Lent harder, you make loving easier; indeed, your love doesn’t stop at your lips but goes deep into your heart. It even changes your desires, not so that you get love right, but so that you can’t get love wrong. It becomes easy to love.

          The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in the section on the human virtues, makes this astounding assertion, saying, “[The human virtues] make possible ease, self-mastery and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good” (Catechism, 1804). Did you catch that?  The virtuous life is characterized by “ease” and “joy” and “freedom.”  In other words, the purpose of Lent is not to give up chocolate for forty days, so you can gorge yourself on Easter Sunday and fall into a chocolate-induced coma. Instead, we practice penance during Lent not to so that we get the virtue of temperance right, but so that we cannot get the virtue of temperance wrong.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Enemy of the Best

Learning to believe in order to receive
Matthew 7:7-12 Jesus said to his disciples: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asked for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asked for a fish? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him. "Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets."

          Several years ago I attended a dinner to raise money for our diocesan seminarians called “Taste of Faith.” Many of you have gone to them as well. Msgr. Scott Friend, the vocation director, related the story of going to the hospital to anoint Joseph Chan after his nearly life-ending car accident. Joseph was teetering between life and death when Msgr. Friend arrived at the hospital together with a local priest in St. Louis. The local priest sounded skeptical when he said, “Yeah, he’s probably not going to make it.” Msgr. Friend fired back, “Well, then it’s a good thing I’m the one giving him the Anointing of the Sick, isn’t it?”  In other words, have a little faith in the power of prayer, and in God’s love for his children. Believe and you will receive. And where is Joseph Chan today? He’s a healthy and holy priest serving faithfully in Little Rock.

          Last Sunday, Dr. Henry Udouj passed out during Mass, actually during my homily on stewardship. Someone said it was just at the moment I said, “Can’t you give a little more this year?” that Henry collapsed. In any event, while we waited for the ambulance to arrive, the congregation prayed the rosary together. By the end of the second glorious mystery, Henry was able to walk out of the church on his own power, and smiled and waved at me letting me know he was okay; or maybe he was just happy he got to leave early during my stewardship sermon. Prayer uttered in faith is powerful because it invokes the name of a loving God to bless his children. Believe and you will receive.

          In the gospel today, Jesus urges his disciples to do the same: to pray with faith and believe that they will receive. He says: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” In the case of Joseph Chan and Henry Udouj that’s exactly what happened. We asked for healing, and healing was given to them. But what about all those times when it seems God’s answer is “no” and we do not receive what we ask for? And that seems to be the case more often than not. God sounds like Meghan Trainor who sang, “My name is ‘No,’ My sign is ‘No,’ My number is ‘No,’ You need to let it go, You need to let it go.”

          To answer that objection, Jesus adds: “If you, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who seek him?” That is, when God says “No” to something we request it’s because he wants to give us something better. God says “no” to nature in order to give us grace; he denies us the natural to give us the supernatural; he holds back earthly goods in order to give us heavenly blessings. An ancient aphorism teaches: “Sometimes the good can become the enemy of the best.” Prayer of faith invokes the name of a loving God, who sometimes says “no” to the good thing we request but only so he can say “yes” to the best things he has in store for us. Believe and you will receive...the best.

          My friends, this is the spirit in which we need to pray, and pray with confidence. Why? The prayer of faith invokes the name of a loving God who wants to open the flood gates of heaven so his blessings rain down upon us. So go ahead and ask to win the Chicago lottery, plead to make the big business deal, pray for a cure for cancer, seek healing for your marriage, ask for your children to be rich and famous, beg God the priest will give shorter sermons (fat chance), pray for more rain and pray for more sunshine, and ask to stop world hunger. Ask for anything; ask for everything. But realize that when God sounds like Meghan Trainor and says “No” to something good, it’s because he wants to give you the best. Believe and you will receive, just like Joseph Chan and Henry Udouj did. But also remember the little ancient aphorism when you pray: don’t let the good become the enemy of the best.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Christian Convicts

Finding enough evidence to convict us of Christianity

Luke 11:29-32 While still more people gathered in the crowd, Jesus said to them, "This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. At the judgment the queen of the south will rise with the men of this generation and she will condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and there is something greater than Solomon here. At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here."

          Boys and girls, is your religion real or is it fake? You know how to bless yourself with holy water (that’s good), but do you turn around and curse others with your words and actions (that’s bad). I once heard it put this way: if you were ever arrested and accused of being a Christian, would there be any evidence to convict you? Do you conduct yourself in a way that is clearly and unconditionally Christian?

          Maybe this little joke will help drive home the point. During an ecumenical gathering (meaning a meeting of difference denominations), a secretary rushed in shouting, “The building is on fire!” The Methodists gathered in a corner and prayed. The Baptists passed the plate to cover the damage. The Catholics cried, “Where’s the holy water??” The Lutherans posted a notice on the door declaring the fire was evil. The Jews posted symbols on the door hoping the fire would pass over them. The Fundamentalists proclaimed, “It’s the vengeance of God!” The Presbyterians appointed a chairperson who was to appoint a committee to look into the matter and submit a written report. Finally, the secretary grabbed the fire extinguisher and put the fire out. That’s what I mean about real religion: it makes a real difference. Sometimes our religion gets in the way of reality.

          In the gospel today, Jesus complains about how the Jews practiced their faith (or failed to practice it); Jesus felt it was a “fake faith” and not “real religion.” He cites two examples – the queen of the south and the Ninevites – who were more faithful to the God of Israel than the Israelites themselves were. Both the queen and the Ninevites believed the prophets of God and changed their lives, while the Jews killed the prophets and behaved even worse than before the prophets preached to them. In other words, there was more evidence of real religion in the queen and the Ninevites than even in the Jews, who were God’s “Chosen People.” The Jews had a “fake faith.”

          Boys and girls, this morning I want you to consider your Christianity and ask yourself: is my Christianity “real religion” or is it a “fake faith”? Could I ever be convicted of being a Christian, could I be a “Christian convict”! And I want to throw out this challenge to our 9th graders in particular. More than the 7th graders and the 8th graders, you’ve had the privilege to be at Trinity now for about 3 years. Have you grown in your faith, become real leaders, given good example, in short could you be “Christian convicts” because there’s plenty of evidence for it? I’m happy to say, “Yes, yes, you have!” The way you interact with each other and care for each other, the sportsmanship you show in basketball, the community service your eagerly perform. That’s not “fake faith,” but rather “real religion.” I’m very proud of you 9th graders.

          But that does not mean you’re perfect; you still act like a bunch of knuckle-heads. You still have room to grow, especially as leaders of this school. Some of you may be tempted to use your size and strength and smarts to bully the smaller 7th and 8th graders. That would be “fake faith.” Indeed, sometimes it seems the 7th and 8th graders are like the queen of the south and the Ninevites who have more real religion than our 9th graders do, because our 9th graders sometimes parade around campus as if they were “the Chosen People” the “big man on campus.” I would rather you 9th graders be “Christian convicts” because you show evidence of your faith, than think you’re “the Chosen people,” who rest on their laurels and titles and show no leadership.

          My dear 9th graders, use the remaining 3 months of your years at Trinity to prove you are the leaders of this school.  John Maxwell, a leadership expert, said that every leader of a group always carries two buckets: one bucket filled with water and the other bucket filled with gasoline. When he or she comes across a fire in the organization, he or she must decide which bucket to throw on the fire: one will extinguish the fire, while the other will make it rage out of control. In the next few months there will be fires that pop up here and there at Trinity, and as 9th grader leaders use your water bucket to put the fire out. More than putting out fires, you will show evidence of real religion, and you could be convicted as a Christian.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Cross Fit

Starting a spiritual exercise routine during Lent

Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus said to his disciples: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.'

          Physical exercise is a funny thing: people have a love-hate relationship with it. Some people adore exercise, while other people abhor exercise. And yet we know we need some exercise in order to live healthier and happier lives. I recently came across a list of why celebrities exercise (or don’t exercise), and I’m sure they will inspire you to jump off the couch. David Lee Roth said: “I used to jog but the ice cubes kept falling out of my glass.” Joan Rivers said: “I don’t exercise. If God had wanted me to bend over, he would have put diamonds on the floor.” Erma Bombeck wrote: “I’ve exercised with women so thin that buzzards followed them to their cars.” Here’s an anonymous one: “Exercise is the poor person’s plastic surgery.” Another anonymous person wrote: “At twenty, we worry about what others think of us. At forty, we don’t care what others think of us. At sixty, we discover that they haven’t been thinking about us at all.” And those are the reasons we love and hate exercise.

          It may be helpful to look at Lent in the light of exercise, that is, as spiritual exercise. When we do additional penance, and take time for prayer and give more alms to help the poor, we’re not developing our biceps or our quads, but we are strengthening our spiritual muscles that enable us to love God and our neighbor more immediately and effortlessly. You could even call this spiritual exercise routine “cross fit” where carrying our cross – instead of carrying huge tires – makes us fit to love others. Just like physical exercise helps to live better, so spiritual exercise help us to love better.

          In the gospel today we see the difference that spiritual exercise makes when we are weighed on the scales of love. The scene is taken from the famous Last Judgment of Matthew 25, when Jesus returns in glory at the end of time flanked by legions of angels to judge humanity. He separates us on his left and his right. Those who loved well are placed on his right, that is, those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the imprisoned, etc. They loved immediately and effortlessly, they didn’t even realize it, because their spiritual muscles were ripped and ready. On the other hand (literally on Jesus’ left hand), are placed those who loved poorly, meaning they failed to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the imprisoned, etc. Why were those on the left so lacking in love? They had not done Cross Fit. They had not exercised spiritually, so they were lethargic in love, waiting for God “to put diamonds on the floor” before they got in spiritual shape. Spiritual exercise is also a love-hate relationship: when we work-out spiritually we love better, but when we are spiritual couch potatoes, we love poorly, that is, we hate.

          This Lent, therefore, listen to your personal trainer, the Holy Spirit, and get into the gym for your Cross Fit work out. Perhaps you’ll consider some of these exercise routines for the next forty days. Make it to daily Mass once or twice during the week (but still attend Sunday Mass!). Pray the rosary every day during Lent. Volunteer to help Dc. Greg minister to the homeless. Spend an hour at our school helping students with their homework (please note: you have to be smarter than a fifth grader to do that). Make some sacrifice that’s meaningful: give up gossip and stop spreading rumors, put the money you’d spend on your chai latte in the poor box, spend an hour in Adoration instead of an hour watching television. You don’t have to do all these things, but you do have to do some of these things. Why? Well, because in order to love immediately and effortlessly, almost without realizing it, you have to have strong and shredded spiritual muscles, that is, you have to be “cross fit.”

          Don’t complain like David Lee Roth that exercising causes the ice cubes to fall out of your glass. A lot worse can happen than that. Jesus may leave us on his left side due to our failure to love, because our spiritual muscles were too anemic. Get into spiritual shape with cross fit and end up on Jesus’ right side, which will be the right side of eternity.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Someone Else

Following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ

Matthew 4:1-11 At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. The tempter approached and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread." He said in reply, "It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God." Then the devil took him to the holy city,  and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone." Jesus answered him, "Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test." Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, "All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me." At this, Jesus said to him, "Get away, Satan! It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve."

          I recently came across this unusual obituary in a church bulletin lately. It read: “Our church was saddened to learn this week of the death of one of our most valued members, his name was ‘Someone Else.’ For many, many years as part of this church, Someone Else did far more than a normal person’s share of the work. Whenever there was a job to do, a class to teach, or a meeting to attend, everybody said, ‘Let Someone Else do it.’ Whenever leadership was mentioned, this wonderful person was looked up to for inspiration as well as results: ‘Someone Else can work with that group!’

          The obituary continued: “It was common knowledge that Someone Else was among the most generous givers. Whenever there was a financial need, everyone assumed that Someone Else would make up the difference. Now, sadly, Someone Else is gone. And we grieve as a parish family and we wonder what we are going to do. Someone Else left us a wonderful example to follow, but who’s going to follow it? Who is going to do the things that Someone Else did? When you are asked to help this year, remember: we can’t depend on Someone Else anymore.”

          I hope you figured out that was an imaginary obituary, but sadly, that obituary could be easily applied to any church and any congregation in the world. Don’t you think? Have you heard of the famous “Pareto Principle”? It was developed by the Italian economist Wilfredo Pareto in his first paper called “Cours d’economie politique.” In 1896, Pareto glimpsed this principle in action by observing his garden very carefully, and he noticed that about 20% of the peapods in his garden contained 80% of the peas, while 80% of the peapods had very few peas. Hence the idea was born that in any given organization 20% of the people will always do 80% of the work, while 80% of the people will only accomplish 20% of the work; the so-called “80/20 rule.” That is, 80% of the people say, “Let Someone Else do it!” If I’m totally honest with myself, I know I’ve said those same words many times myself, “Let some other priest do it!” You see, I believe Someone Else is not dead but alive and well.

          In today’s gospel, we hear the very familiar story of Jesus being tempted by Satan for 40 days in the desert. However, if you look closely at the interaction between Satan and Jesus – like Pareto looked closely at his peapods – you’ll actually hear Satan saying, “Let Someone Else do it!” That is, let Someone Else be the Savior, while you, Jesus, take it easy. Go ahead and change stones into bread and eat your fill; let the angels catch you when you fall, and enjoy the riches of this world. But Jesus had studied his Italian economics, and he knew the Pareto Principle very well. He had come to earth to be Someone Else, to be the Savior; he had come to suffer and die for humanity himself; and not to pass the buck. Jesus refused to be a hollow peapod as Satan was suggesting he should.

          My friends, by now you all should have received at home a letter from me asking for your prayerful financial support of our parish. You should also have received a pledge card to use make that commitment more concrete. Now, please don’t misunderstand the point of the pledge card: this is NOT a new capital campaign. Lord knows we’ve had enough capital campaigns and I’d like a break from them as much as you would. Instead, the pledge card is to ask you to prayerfully consider how much you can give in the Sunday collection and see if you can maybe even increase your giving. If you cannot increase your gift, that’s perfectly okay, too, you’ll just have to make up for it in purgatory. (Just kidding!) Sometimes, we only think about these things when we’re forced to, so I’m sorry if you’re feeling a little forced to right now. Some of you may find it convenient to sign up for “automatic bank draft,” which helps us even when you’re out of town. I also know many prefer to keep their giving anonymous – do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing – but just make sure one hand is doing something! I have completed my pledge card and will turn it in to the office on Monday, and I made a modest increase in my donations. You’ll also find in the bulletin this weekend a “quick and dirty” financial summary from last year, 2016. You’ll be very pleased with our frugal our church staff is with your money. We’re all a bunch of penny-pinchers, and I’m the head Pincher of them all!

          Most of all, this weekend I hope you avoid the temptation to think: Let “Someone Else” give to support Immaculate Conception Church. Ask yourself today: am I in the 20% of the peapods that supports this parish or in the 80%? In the end, of course, it’s simply a matter of being like Christ: not embracing what is easy or egotistical or enriching, but offering our sacrifices together with Jesus’ saving sacrifice on the Cross.

          Let me leave you with this little lesson. A boy came to Sunday school late. Knowing he was usually very prompt, his teacher asked, “Johnny, is there anything wrong?” He answered: “No, ma’am, not really. I was going to go fishing, but my daddy told me that I needed to get on up and go to church.” The teacher was very impressed and asked Johnny if his father had explained to him why it was more important to go to church than to go fishing. “Yes, ma’am, he did,” Johnny replied sullenly, “My daddy said he didn’t have enough bait for both of us.” Folks, I don’t really care why you came to church today, even if it’s because you didn’t have enough bait to go fishing. I’m just glad you came. In the same vein, it’s not my job to police how much you give in the collection: that’s between you and God. I only urge you to be as generous as you can, and then you’ll be following the eternal example of Someone Else, that Someone Else named Jesus.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Friday, March 3, 2017

God of Hearts

Seeing God with hearts full of love
Isaiah 58:1-9A 
         Thus says the Lord GOD: Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: That a man bow his head like a reed and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!

          Here’s a little riddle for you: what organ of the human body did God gave to man to be able to know God best? You might immediately answer, “Obviously, that is the head!” After all, we study the Scriptures with our heads, we argue apologetics to convert non-Christians with our heads, we read the writings of the saints and scholars with our heads. Surely, we say, the head (the mind) is our best organ to know God. And that’s true enough. However, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (who was no intellectual slouch, he had a huge head!) said in his book Jesus of Nazareth, “The organ for seeing God is the heart. The intellect is not enough.” Kind of surprising, isn’t it?  In other words, our head will only take us so far in knowing God, but our hearts helps us to get to God faster and it takes us farther.

          I’ve been enjoying reading a book by Romano Guardini called The Lord that Fr. Andrew gave me. Guardini said something surprising, too, when he claimed that God uses his heart to get to know us. Guardini wrote: “Tell me what moves you, and I will tell you who you are. God is moved by the suffering human heart; the pain clouds his face, and we understand who he is…He is the God of hearts” (The Lord, 125). Did you catch that: not only does man know God best by his heart, but we can also dare to say that God knows man best by his heart. That’s why John Henry Newman’s personal dictum was: “cor ad cor loquitur” which means “heart speaks to heart,” our heart speaks to God’s heart and his to ours. Again, Newman was an intellectual giant shockingly saying that the intellect is not enough.

          In the first reading Isaiah teaches the people God wants their hearts, not just their heads. He explains the purpose of fasting is not merely to know and obey a rule, but above all, to change a heart, to learn to love. Isaiah writes: “This, rather is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly…Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and homeless; clothing the naked when you see them.” And what does Isaiah predict will happen when your heart loves like that? He promises: “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help and he will say: Here I am!” Like Guardini said: “Tell me what moves you and I will tell you who you are. He is the God of hearts.” God hears you when you speak from the heart, a heart full of love. God is not impressed by how much you know, but he is deeply touched by how much you love.

          People often ask me every Lent: Fr. John what should I do to make this season more spiritually fruitful? I would say the same thing Guardini said: “Tell me what moves you and I will tell you who you are.” That is, what do you love, and how can you love better? Do you have trouble loving your neighbor? Do you lack love for your spouse? Is a parent especially hard to love? Do you love your pastor (everyone should love their pastor more!)? On the other hand, do you love some things too much? Do you love your material possessions too much? Do you love your reputation (that is, your ego) too much? Do you love your political party too much? Both the Greek philosopher Aristotle and the medieval theologian Aquinas taught that we can fail to love on two sides: by both excess (too much love) or by defect (too little love), and we must rein in both extremes every Lent.

          That is the purpose of Lent: to learn to love, to have a huge heart, not just a huge head. Why? Because the best organ for seeing God is the heart.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Veto Life

Learning to say “yes” to the higher life in Christ

Luke 9:22-25 
         Jesus said to his disciples: "The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised." Then he said to all, "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?"

          Nothing could be more natural or a “no-brainer” than a person’s desire to live. From the first breath a baby takes in till the last breath an elderly man exhales out, we fight for life and we flee from death. Anthropologists all agree that our strongest instinct is to live; indeed even the instinct to procreate (which is pretty dang strong, too) is really a desire to extend life beyond death. We live on in our children and grandchildren. That’s why when we walk into a dark room, we instinctively put out our arms: we’re willing to lose that member (our hand or our arm) to save our whole life. We choose life so daily and so deeply we don’t even have to think about it.

          I don’t know about you, but I love to see those yellow license plates that say “Choose Life.” Who could possibly disagree with something so painfully obvious as choosing life? But did you know it was an extremely hard, and uphill battle to approve the “Choose Life” license plate? According to the website called “Choose Life America, Inc.” the license plate idea started in Ocala, Florida by Randy Harris in 1996. In 1997 the Florida legislature presented the plan to then-Governor Lawton Chiles, who actually vetoed it. Finally in 2000, Florida passed the Choose Life license plate. And the idea has spread across the country and we even see it here in the frontier of Fort Smith. Our desire to choose life is always instinctive, but knowing how to choose life is never easy. Sometimes we “veto life.”

          Our Scriptures today continue this conundrum of choosing life: easy to understand but hard to practice. In the first reading, Moses asks the people to make a choice between life and death, saying, “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.” Can’t you almost sense how offended the Israelites must have felt at such a proposal? It was almost like asking them to choose between purified water and poison. Duh. But in the gospel Jesus complicates the matter considerably more. Our Lord declares: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” In other words, in order to choose a higher life, we must say no to a lower life. If we choose to live in Jesus, we can no longer live in sin, and that choice will feel like a “little death.” We all “choose life” – we really can’t help ourselves – but we don’t all choose the higher life of heaven rather than the lower life of sin. Sometimes we must “veto life,” that is, the life of sin.

          My friends, what are you giving up for Lent this year? Maybe you’re giving up television, or Facebook and social media, or alcohol, or desserts, or giving up curse words, or gossiping. Those are all great things to sacrifice.  A priest in the seminary always told us: “Give up ‘sin’ for Lent, you don’t need it anyway.” We seminarians always laughed, and then we gave up chocolate instead. Today, try to look at your Lenten sacrifice - prayer or penance or almsgiving – as a saying “no” to the lower life of sin, so that you can say “yes” to the higher life in Christ. When you feel the pinch and the prickle of your penance you are “losing your life” (it may feel as if you’re almost “choosing death”) for Jesus sake. Authentic spirituality always points to a paradox: to choose life we must first choose death.

          During the forty days of Lent we choose incremental death, so that on Easter Sunday we may enjoy infinite life. Choosing life may be instinctive, but it is never easy. Sometimes you have to “veto life.”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Comings and Goings

Accepting the temporary nature of life on earth
O God, who desire not the death of the sinner, But their conversion, Mercifully hear our prayers, And in your kindness be pleased to bless + these ashes, Which we intend to receive upon our heads, That we, who acknowledge we are but ashes, And shall return to dust, May, through a steadfast observance of Lent, Gain pardon for sins and newness of life, After the likeness of your Risen Son. Who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

          Someone recently sent me this little bit of Ash Wednesday humor. A little boy went up to his mother and said, “Mom, is it true that we are all made from dust?” The mother looked at her boy and said, “Yes.” The boy then asked, “And is it true that when we die we will be returned to dust?” The mother looking a little puzzled, thought a minute and replied, “Yes, but why do you ask?” The little boy said, “Well mom, I’m not quite sure but under my bed there’s either someone coming or going.”
          Now, we may smile or laugh at the little boy’s naiveté, but he has stumbled onto two of the great mysteries of life: our birth and our death, our “coming” (into this world) and our “going” (out of this world). Last week one of our church staff members had a new baby – named Mariell Estella – and that same week we had the funeral of a 97 year old lady, Ann Sparks. “Someone is either coming or going” not only under the bed but also in this world.

          In his immortal Shakespearean soliloquy, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, contemplates life and death, too. His father, the King of Denmark, has been murdered and his father’s ghost asks Hamlet to avenge his untimely death. Hamlet opines: “To be or not to be – that is the question / Whether tis’ nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them…To die, to sleep - / To sleep, perchance to dream; ay, there’s the rub / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause.” Like the little boy peeking under his bed to see someone coming and going in the form of dust, so Hamlet paused in his mind’s eye to contemplate the comings and goings of his father and his assassin. And whether Hamlet should speed up the assassin’s “going”! People’s comings and goings should give us pause.

          Every Ash Wednesday, the Church invites us to pause and to peek at people’s coming and goings by putting ashes – dust – on our foreheads. The prayer of blessing of ashes says, “We acknowledge we are ashes and shall return to dust.” In a few moments we come forward and a sacred minister will make a Cross of ashes on our forehead. They will say very solemnly: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Do you know who I find it especially hard to mark with those ashes? It’s little babies or toddlers, who are just starting the great adventure of their life. How paradoxical to tell a person whose life has hardly begun to pause and ponder how his or her life may end.

          And yet I believe the Church in her wisdom offers us a great grace in this moment. The Church whispers to us, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” In other words, try to be like that little boy who peeked under his bed and saw someone either coming or going; indeed, we are all either coming or going. I’ll never forget the movie “Shawshank Redemption,” when Tim Robbins said: “Get busy living or get busy dying.” We’re always doing one or the other.  Even more pointedly, the Church asks us to see that we are the ones who are coming and going, that is, to meditate on our own mortality.

          And this grace grows increasingly urgent in our modern society that tempts us to think we will live forever, that earthly life is unending, that we will be perpetually young, that we will never face death. We have clothing stores called “Forever 21,” and we buy skin creams that are “age defying.” We want to shake our fist at the sky, and say adamantly, “I’m not either coming or going, I’m staying!” One day I asked an altar server before Mass if he thought my age was old (I’m 47). He could tell it sounded like a trick question, so he answered very politically: “Not really.” Then I asked him if he would ever be as old as me, and he immediately answered, “No way!” I smiled because when I was 12 years old I would have said the same thing. We desperately need the Church to remind us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, because we want desperately to forget that. Please don’t hear me saying we should be morbid or morose, but only that we not bury our head in the sand. We may find that the sands are really in an hourglass and the sands of time are slowly slipping through our hands.

          In his “Meditation XVII” (my favorite), the English preacher and poet, John Donne wrote: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” In many towns there is the tradition of tolling of church bells when someone dies. Have you heard those bells ringing? Donne is answering the little boy peeking under his bed, saying, “Don’t ask who’s coming and going under your bed, realize that you, too, are mingled in that dust. The bell tolls for thee, even if you like to shop at Forever 21.”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!